On January 12, a major gas pipeline was blown up with an explosive device in southern Dagestan. The pipeline stretching from Mozdok in North Ossetia to Kazimagomed in Dagestan connects Russian gas pipelines to the Azeri gas pipeline network. Eleven settlements, including the city of Derbent in the southern part of the republic with the overall population of 170,000 people, were left without gas supplies (ITAR-TASS, January 12).
The attack took place days after president Dmitry Medvedev demanded that Russia’s law enforcement agencies eliminate the insurgents in Dagestan, who are thought to be behind the attacks. An already precarious security situation in Dagestan worsened after a suicide bomber attacked the transport police headquarters in Makhachkala on January 6, killing six policemen and wounding over 20.
On January 11, President Medvedev met with Dagestan’s President Mukhu Aliev in Moscow. Even though the details of the talks were not made public, observers expected the two men to discuss the recent destabilization in the republic and the issue of political succession (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 11). Medvedev is required to announce the candidate for Dagestan’s president no later than 30 days before the current president’s term expires on February 20. “In anticipation of this date there is a most interesting situation: the real election for the president of Dagestan is occurring inside the Kremlin, while fierce fighting for the position is taking place two thousand kilometers away [in Dagestan],” observed a Novaya Gazeta reporter on January 11.
Many commentators have remarked that political rivalry in the run-up to Aliev’s presidential term expiration has strongly contributed to the worsening security situation in Dagestan. While it looks like a plausible explanation, suicide attacks in particular can hardly be explained by the political turmoil in Dagestan. It is more likely that besides the scramble for power, there is also the issue of an ongoing insurgency inside an important North Caucasus republic that borders energy-rich Azerbaijan.
At a meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB) Aleksandr Bortinkov following the January 6 attack, Medvedev made statements that caused significant controversy in Dagestan. The Russian president urged the FSB to fight the insurgents –or “bandits,” as he called them– with a firm hand. “They should simply be eliminated, it [the process of elimination] should be done firmly and systematically, that is to say regularly,” Medvedev said. “Because underground banditry, unfortunately, still exists” (www.kremlin.ru, January 8).
Medvedev’s harsh language was not received well by the entire Dagestani public. Such an approach to resolving the existing issues in Dagestan might provoke a further deterioration of the situation in the republic and in the North Caucasus, warned the head of the Dagestani transportation and business union, Isalmagomed Nabiev. “Even without Medvedev’s demands, the siloviki every now and then have used extralegal reprisals against people, just to declare ex post facto that those killed were insurgents,” Nabiev said. “Now that the death squads have received public approval from the very top leadership, this will surely be reflected in a [growing] number of reprisals. No one is insulated against a quick death, because the siloviki will divide the peaceful population into the insurgents, their accomplices and their sympathizers, according to a scheme that is known only to them [the siloviki]” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 12).
The security services visibly stepped up efforts to kill more suspected insurgents following the January 6 suicide attack. Investigators claimed that the security services killed two insurgents in a Makhachala suburb on January 7 who had been involved in the attack on police the previous day. One Russian security force member was wounded and subsequently died in the incident (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 7 and 10). On January 9, three rebel suspects were killed by the police when they refused an order to stop their car. One of those killed was identified as the militant underground leader Marat Kurbanov.
The security services also claimed to have killed another leader of the Dagestani insurgency, Madrid Begov (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 10). The Russian security services often have announced virtually all slain insurgency suspects to be “leaders of the Islamic underground,” which may not be an accurate description. At the same time, rights activists have accused the law enforcement agencies of extralegal murders of not only terrorism suspects, but also innocent civilians.
As the security services increased pressure on what they describe as the underground terrorist forces, the attacks did not stop. On January 7, another policeman was killed in his home in Makhachkala (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 8).
FSB head Aleksandr Bortnikov reportedly views the situation in Dagestan as the biggest challenge to security in the North Caucasus, with few prospects of the situation abating by administrative means, including a change in its leadership (www.vedomosti.ru, January 12).
Russia’s Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev visited Dagestan on January 8. He tasked the Dagestani police with paying special attention to uncovering the financial inflows –from the outside world as well as internally– that allow the militant underground to function. In particular, he pointed out that poaching on the Caspian Sea was known to contribute to provide support for the insurgents. According to the minister, over 150 fighters were killed and more than 100 arrested in Dagestan in 2009, while nearly 60 policemen were killed (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 8). According to Kavkazsky Uzel’s count, 51 Dagestani civilians were killed and 39 wounded in the fighting between the police and insurgents. Also last year, 22 people were kidnapped (19 cases of which were confirmed by the authoritative human rights organization Memorial) and 10 of those people were killed, four were released and five are still missing. Fifteen counter-terrorism operations took place across Dagestan in 2009 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 12).
While it is likely that violence will decrease after Moscow announces who will be the next president of Dagestan, it seems that the Kremlin currently has no long-term solution for Dagestan. The republic, because of its astounding multiethnic composition, can hardly be subordinated by a Kadyrov-like personality, while democratization of Dagestan’s political life is clearly not on Moscow’s present agenda.